One more reason to visit this New Mexico resort town.
Lincoln the town and Lincoln the county were the center of much guns-a-blazin’ Wild West action in 1870s–80s New Mexico Territory, and they still get their share of attention from Billy the Kid fans, gunfighter and lawmen aficionados and tourists in general. Thirty miles southwest of unincorporated Lincoln is Ruidoso, a resort town best known for a nearby racetrack (Ruidoso Downs) and a Mescalero-owned ski resort (Ski Apache) on 12,000- foot Sierra Blanca. Now a bonus destination is luring others to this fast-growing south-central New Mexico community—the Ruidoso River Museum. Founders Arnold and Grace Duke opened the museum in November 2008. Elise Gomber, curator since its inception, proudly states that it houses the world’s largest collection of exhibits, artifacts, documents and photographs relating to the Lincoln County War. Included are personal possessions of Billy the Kid, Pat Garrett and others with connections to a conflict rooted in personal animosity and business competition that led to greed, rage and murder.
On one side were partners Lawrence Murphy and James Dolan, who ran a general mercantile store in Lincoln and, backed by corrupt territorial officials, established a financial and political monopoly. On the other side were attorney Alexander McSween and Englishman John Tunstall, a rancher/storeowner who arrived in town in 1876. Threats of physical and legal action were mostly the order of the day until Tunstall’s murder on February 18, 1878, which prompted his followers (the Kid among them) to form the Regulators and seek retribution, setting off the Lincoln County War improper. Murder and destruction became the new disorder, involving in one way or another just about everyone of note, including John Chisum, the largest rancher in what was then the largest county in New Mexico Territory. Chisum was losing money due to rustling and Murphy/Dolan’s lucrative contracts (largely secured through corrupt county officials) to supply beef to nearby Fort Stanton.
The Regulators tracked down Tunstall’s murderers and other Murphy/Dolan supporters, including Lincoln County Sheriff William J. Brady, whom they ambushed in town on April 1, 1878. A new sheriff, George Peppin, put the McSween house under siege in midJuly, Dolan’s army of gunmen setting the house ablaze and silencing McSween and some of his supporters. The Kid slipped custody—for a while. New Mexico got a new territorial governor, Lew Wallace, and the war petered out. But Billy the Kid lived on as the primary scapegoat. After the Kid was captured at Stinking Springs and sentenced in Mesilla to hang for Brady’s murder, he bolted jail in Lincoln in April 1881, killing two of Sheriff Garrett’s deputies in the process. On July 14, Garrett shot down the Billy the Kid at Fort Sumner.
The Ruidoso River Museum features many photos and documents related to the war and its principal characters, as well as Garrett’s gold badge and Colt Model 1877 Thunderer and a rifle owned by Billy the Kid. It’s hard to miss a gold, pearl and turquoise broach John Tunstall probably presented to Alexander McSween’s wife, Susan. Also on display are Governor Wallace’s sword, John Chisum’s ax and James Dolan’s knife. The museum’s mission in part is “to ensure that each guest leaves our museum with a basic understanding of the circumstances on the Lincoln County War and the several years preceding and following it.” Curator Gomber adds, “We use a lot photographs so people can look into the eyes of the people about whom they are learning.”
For those not into the Kid and company, the museum also showcases American Indian items, gold samples and mining artifacts, including implements from the George Hearst gold mine in Pinos Altos, N.M. Others will be surprised to find jewelry and other items that once belonged to celebrities worldwide. The museum is at 101 Mechem Drive in Ruidoso. For hours of operation, visit www.ruidosorivermuseum.com or call 575-257-0296.
Originally published in the February 2010 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.